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We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

-Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)

Why do we have formal education? Why do we have schools? The first part of our exploration into the impact of high-stakes testing on creativity and learning begins with this question. If we are going to examine what we are doing and how we are doing it, it is important to start with why we are doing it. Odds are if you ask a student why they have to learn in school, they’ll tell you it is so they can pass the state test. Ask a teacher why the are teaching a certain content or a certain strategy, the answer will likely be the same.

Case in Point: Texas Middle Schools

Across the great state of Texas right now, educators are in a full court press for the State of Texas of Assessment of Academic Readiness, or, STAAR for short. For example, eighth grade students must pass the reading and math portions of this test in order to be promoted to high school. The state gives them three tries to accomplish this. Their first attempt was April 10-11. Scores came in for those tests last Monday, April 30. The second attempt is next Monday, May 14. Teachers and students have 10 school days to prepare.

Out of approximately 400,000 eighth graders in Texas, roughly 275,000 are breathing a sigh of relief right now and some are even experiencing a sense of joy. The other 125,000 students are experiencing something different. They are looking at retaking either the math or reading test (or even both) and the flurry of activities that surround preparing for and taking that test.

The teachers, principals, counselors, instructional coaches and parents of these students are also experiencing a wide range of emotions. From the time they received the scores on Monday April 30, they have 10 school days to get those students ready for the 2nd try on May 14. Keep in mind, also, that they can’t actually see the test the students took and therefore don’t know which questions were missed. They can’t look at the process through which the student chose the right or wrong answer, they can’t use the old test as a learning tool. Students and teachers do have their scores by objective and can use that as a general guide for what areas to target – what areas the student did well in and what areas the student did not do well in – but, this is just an approximation of what the student needs help with, it is not precise.

In these 10 days, schools are required to accelerate those students who failed. Thus, they’ll have lots of extra math or reading intervention (or both) during the school day in a mad rush to help these students pass on the second attempt. That means lots of missed electives classes and lots of extra tutoring and lots of stress and pressure on everyone involved. And just to be sure you are reading this correctly, yes, schools have TEN DAYS to fill in a year’s worth of gaps.

How well does the system pay off? Well, come May 14 approximately 25-33% of the students who failed the first time will pass the second time. That’s correct, you read that right, only 1 out of 3 or 4 students will pass the second attempt. All that extra time, money, and effort for such little payoff. All those missed electives and missed general instruction, all the extra money for after school tutoring and for special buses to take the students home afterward. Two more days dedicated solely to testing instead of teaching. All the substitutes hired to “teach” the regular classes while the teacher works with the students who failed. All the planning, preparing, coaching, and cajoling in order to bump up test scores by a few percentage points.

About the last week of school (sometimes even the last day), the results from the 2nd attempt will come in. So those last few days when schools are doing their best to keep students engaged (or entertained) and out of trouble until the summer break comes, the news will be delivered again. Roughly 40,000 students will be relieved. The remaining 85,000 students who failed again will face even more bureaucracy and stress. They will have to have a meeting with their parents and the school to set up a possible 3rd attempt in the summer. If they choose that route, then they have to register for about 2 ½ weeks of summer school to get ready for the 3rd try. Parents can decline and then the student will be retained. Also, keep in mind that this type of summer school differs from the more traditional summer school intended for students who failed their classes and didn’t earn enough credits. Many students fall into both categories, however, but the red tape is different for each.

Come June, when the students try for a 3rd time, yet again, we’ll see roughly 1/4 or 1/3 actually pass and be promoted to high school (but, they’ll likely lose an elective class to take an additional intervention class). That will still leave roughly 56,000 students across Texas ineligible to be promoted to high school. I know what you are thinking, that is a lot of students to retain. Those 8th grade students and teachers will never catch up. Don’t worry, the state set up a loop hole.

The vast majority of these students, who have failed the test 3 times, will have another meeting with the schools called a Grade Placement Committee (GPC). The GPC will decide if the student should be retained or placed in the 9th grade with “extra supports” to help them succeed. Thus, around 50,000 students will likely be “placed”, not promoted, into the 9th grade. And, after all this stress, time, money, and energy they will go to high school without having passed the STAAR – even though their teachers and principals told them all year that they couldn’t go to high school if they didn’t pass. So, what did the student really learn?

Back to the Why

Looking at this example, which is just one of many being played out across the country, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this the purpose of education? Is this why we teach? Is this the Why that drives our educational system?” It shouldn’t be, but it certainly has taken over. Schools even hold pep rallies to cheer students on for the test. Everything about the school year revolves around the test – and this isn’t just in Texas.

Education should not be about lying and manipulating students, but with high-stakes testing, it is. Educational standards and passing rates should be transparent and easily understood, but with high-stakes testing, they are not. To be fair, this is not what the accountability system was designed to do. This is not what teachers, counselors, and principals signed up to do. Sadly, however, this is what we’re doing.

In order to change this reality, we have to zoom out for a minute. The daily grind and the daily struggle to keep our heads above water don’t usually allow for such reflection. However, if we don’t, nothing will change. That is our purpose here. To zoom out, take a moment to catch our breath, and to start by asking why? Part 1b, will continue with this question.

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